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Buttigieg and super PAC improperly coordinated on Nevada ads, watchdog group says

Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg has touted his military service. (Joseph Prezioso/Afp Via Getty Images)

A campaign finance watchdog group has filed a complaint alleging that the presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg improperly coordinated with VoteVets, a super PAC supporting the campaign of the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.

In the complaint, filed Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission, the Campaign Legal Center alleged that Buttigieg’s campaign improperly accepted more than $639,000 in contributions, in violation of federal rules barring candidates from coordinating with independent groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

The complaint centers on a tweet by Buttigieg senior strategist Michael Halle analyzing the strengths of a particular campaign message in Nevada, and a subsequent ad campaign in that state by VoteVets that appeared to follow the strategy outlined in the tweet.

“Pete’s military experience and closing message from Iowa work everywhere especially in Nevada where it’s critical they see this on the air through the caucus,” Halle tweeted Feb. 5, apparently in reference to Buttigieg’s final pitch to voters that he is their best option for unifying the party.

That same day, campaign spokesman Chris Meagher said in a statement that the campaign welcomed the help of VoteVets and that the backing of veterans is critical to beating President Trump: “Pete is the only candidate who isn’t a millionaire or billionaire. And if the largest progressive veterans group wants to help spread the word about his service we welcome it.”

One week later, VoteVets spent $639,652 to produce and run television ads in Nevada that emphasized Buttigieg’s strengths as a veteran and as a unifying figure, according to the complaint. The group has denied that it improperly coordinated with the campaign.

Independent allies of candidates can’t spend money “in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of” a candidate, under federal rules.

But candidates and the independent super PACs that support them have increasingly found ways to work together without breaking laws barring outright coordination.

One common method is to signal strategies to each other using public means of communication, such as speeches, interviews, social media, news articles, news releases or a campaign website.

It’s bold, but legal: How campaigns and their super PAC backers work together

Still, the complaint argues that this particular instance crossed the line.

“This is different from what we’ve seen before, because the tweeted request is so obvious, including significant details about content, timing, location and duration of the ads that the Buttigieg campaign was seeking,” said Brendan Fischer, who directs the federal regulatory work of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for greater restrictions on the role of money in politics.

The Buttigieg campaign did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Joseph E. Sandler, an attorney for VoteVets, said in a statement that the group “has conducted all of its activities in full compliance with federal campaign finance laws and regulations.”

“Acting independently — without any discussion or consultation with the campaign, devising its own messages and selecting its own audiences — VoteVets created an advertisement, to be run in Nevada, supporting Mayor Buttigieg,” Sandler’s statement read.

Sandler added that Halle’s tweet was a public statement and “did not influence in any way VoteVets’ decision to run the advertisement, or the timing, content or targeting of the advertisement.” Nevada was the next state in the Democratic primary process and a natural place for the group to run its ads, he said.

Bipartisan group of campaign finance lawyers urge leaders to ‘immediately’ restore quorum at Federal Election Commission

It is highly unlikely that there will be any formal action on the complaint before the November election. The FEC typically takes more than two years to reach a conclusion on legal complaints.

And the FEC currently lacks a voting quorum, so the panel would not be able to take a formal vote until it had at least four commissioners.

“The FEC’s failure to enforce its own rules in the decades since Citizens United and the recent lack of quorum has encouraged super PACs and campaigns to work together. But this does cross the line,” Fischer said.